Journal of Secondary Alternate Education

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Column: Lukiv's "Place" for Educators to Think About Teaching

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Motivation from a Humanistic Point of View (from The Master Teacher. [2001.] Vancouver, BC: y press and BCTF Lesson Aids), by Dan Lukiv. 

Meet a student's needs in class, and, very likely, he will be motivated to learn. Call this a humanistic view of motivation. Carl Rogers, from his therapeutic training as a counsellor, would agree with me that the humanistic view makes sense. As he says (I love this quote!):

If the counsellor [teacher] likes the client [student], unconditionally, and if the counsellor [teacher] understands the essential feelings [needs] of the client [student] as they seem to the client [student]...then there is a strong probability that this will be an effective helping relationship. (1958, p. 4 of his article)1

He calls this the "client-centered approach" (p. 4); for my purposes, as an educator, I call it a humanistic approach.

Because needs for one person differ from needs for another, a teacher applying this humanistic philosophy naturally treats students individually. For example, a student might have a pronounced need to make choices. The teacher "provide[s the] student[ ] with more autonomy"1 (Stipek, 1998, p. 12). William Glasser says that "teachers...[need to learn] enough Choice Theory to understand how students [in particular, at-risk students] need to be treated if they are to [begin doing work at school]" (1977, p. 601). He adds, "We asked...students why they were no longer disruptive and why they were beginning to work in school[. O]ver and over they said, 'You care about us.' And sometimes they added, 'And now you give us choices [more autonomy] and work that we like to do'" (p. 601).

We need to work with students, in the student-centered spirit of William Glasser, John Dewey, Jean-Jacques Rosseau, and at least two others: Kellough and Kellough. In the words of those last two:

[1.] Collaboratively plan with students challenging and engaging classroom learning activities and assignments. (Kellough & Kellough, 1999, p. 45)

Student-centered? Humanistic?

[2.] Maintain high expectations, although not necessarily identical, for every student. (p. 45)

[3.] Develop...withitness....Be aware of everything that is going on in the classroom, at all times, monitoring students for signs of restlessness, frustration, anxiety, and off-task behaviours. Be ready to reassign individual learners to different activities as the situation warrants. (p. 47)

Again, student-centered, humanistic?

[4.] Involve students in understanding and in making important decisions about their own learning, so that they feel ownership...of that learning. (p. 49)

If a teacher follows the advice of those four, he will grow aware of students' needs; and, if a student seems particularly frustrated, the teacher will try to find out why.

As an example, let's take Curt, in your Science 10 class, who looks red-faced. In fact, he has looked that way all class, he hasn't done any work on the latest assignment, and he is fidgeting much more than usual.

"Curt, you don't look like you're enjoying this science."

He doesn't look up. He seldom does. He stares at his blank sheet of paper, and says, "It sucks."

Other kids are busy with their work, so you have some privacy. "Could you tell me what you don't like about it?"

Curt is not introspective, but at least you're letting him know that you're interested in what he thinks.

"I don't know! It sucks!"

Fortunately you and him still have some privacy. Otherwise, this discussion might need to take place somewhere else, without an audience. You recall that Curt loves using computers. You negotiate with him and discover that he knows he could easily complete the assignment by using the Internet rather than "the boring textbook" (as he calls it) to gather necessary information. You haven't psychoanalyzed him. You don't really understand this introverted, often-frustrated student, but you and he are working together. Next class this boy actually brings in homework! Homework? Homework that he has assigned to himself! He has a stack of printed-out information that he assembles on his desk. He begins to organize it. He underlines pertinent sentences. Next class he begins formatting the information into a report.

That really happened (however, I was the teacher, and his name has been changed). Curt was frustrated because he disliked the original assignment that was based on "the boring textbook." He redesigned the assignment, and then his motivation soared.

Not only will a teacher using my humanistic philosophy of motivation try to understand:

1. why a student, like Curt, has stopped working; or, at least,

2. what would get him working;

he will also try to show students by his words, actions, and attitude that he will give them help when they need help. I don't mean help as quippy, cliché-ridden statements a teacher has memorized over the years to respond to exactly "this" problem that sometimes comes up at "that" place in the course. Also, and this is important, students need to know that they won't be "penalize[d]...for honesty and openness" (Stipek, 1998, p. 15).

Sometimes help means "nurtur[ing] student interest in the act of learning itself" (Vispoel & Austin, 1995, p. 406). Kieran Egan refers to "the ecstatic power to create and express one's own world and one's own self" (1990, p. 90). If a student can't relate to a creative writing assignment, or to a report that must be done in a particularly particular way that a student finds absurd, then where is the "creative power" of the student, or, for that matter, where is the chance for "lateral-thinking ecstasy" (Chapter Seven: How Big is the Universe?, paragraph 7)? If the teacher digs in his heels and says, "That's the way this assignment is to be done. Write a story about what it would be like to be a dog. Understand? Now hurry up. This must be finished at 1:35, when the bell rings." What does that attitude do to students' motivation?

The humanistic teacher is not a rock. He is flexible, using teaching methods that meet the needs of his students. He "observe[s them] in...a variety of contexts, and performing a variety of tasks" (Stipek, 1998, p. 14). Why? To determine how to help them enjoy, and be successful at, school. He looks for ways to encourage, and, therefore, to motivate them. His focus on needs teaches him that "students differ in learning rates....But...these differences decrease somewhat when the quality and organization of instruction is improved for all students" (Raffini, 1993, p. 45). He knows that "some students work diligently in small groups [one learning style] but never finish tasks that are designed to be done individually. Some students work best in structured learning situations [another style], others in unstructured situations, and so on (Stipek, 1998, p. 14).

Who is more motivated to learn, the student forced to use a learning style that grates him, or a student allowed to use a learning style that, for him or her, encourages a passion for learning?

For some students, that latter style means making some noise. "Many parents and educators misinterpret...chatter as a sign of disobedience [or] inattentiveness...In fact, private speech is an essential part of cognitive development for all children" (Berk, 1994, p. 78). This doesn't refer to students thoughtlessly gabbing to each other, but, rather, it refers to students speaking to themselves as they try to learn something. "We know that private speech is healthy, adaptive and essential behavior and that some children need to use it more often and for a longer period that others" (p. 83). If a teacher demands silence in class, what will that demand do to the motivation of students who need to make a little noise?

In the spirit of that question, which implies that motivation increases as teachers address students' needs, look at the multitude of needs addressed in these comments by Vispoel and Austin:

Teachers should do everything in their power to develop and nurture student interest in the act of learning itself and in the topics covered in class. High levels of interest might be cultivated in a variety of ways such as emphasizing task-oriented rather than ego-oriented [competitive-based] learning goals, demonstrating the real-world application of class material whenever possible, making classroom presentations as engaging as possible, providing students with choices among learning tasks, defining multiple avenues for students to demonstrate learning proficiency, fostering group interaction among students, developing closer teacher-student relations, helping each student set...learning goals...that are challenging but achievable. (1995, p. 406)

Please note my words "competitive-based." For many students, competition de-motivates. It can destroy a sense of community in a class, thereby creating a sense that one's needs aren't important. It takes Rogers' words at the start of this article--"if the counsellor [teacher] understands the essential feelings [needs] of the client [student] as they seem to the client [student]...then there is a strong probability that this will be an effective helping relationship"--and chucks them out the window. Maybe the needs of some students are being met through competition, but couldn't their needs be met in some other way that doesn't humiliate those who have learned through "comparative [competitive] evaluation...[that] being a 'good' or successful student is directly related to peer rank; success requires that one ranks above the average" (Raffini, 1993, p. 51; also refer to Stipek, 1998, pp. 76-77)?2

John Taylor Gatto would say that competitive evaluation destroys a school's sense of community and that it de-motivates students. In his Dumbing us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling, he relates that

if...[obtaining] an A average is accounted the central purpose of adolescent life [rather than acquiring "community" (humanistic) values of friendship, loyalty, integrity, compassion, and empathy]--the requirements for which take most of the time and attention of the aspirant--and the worth of the individual is reckoned by victory or defeat in this abstract pursuit, then a social machine [our traditional system of scholastic achievement] has been constructed which, by attaching purpose and meaning to essentially meaningless and fantastic behavior, will certainly dehumanize students. (1992, p. 62)

Do you find the word "dehumanize" too strong? I don't. Not when I realize that by advertising this traditional system of scholastic achievement, especially at auditorium-filled awards day-ceremonies, we reinforce that a student's worth (s) equals achievement (a). s = a. Thur's some math--aye? Can teachers who work hard to make students feel good about themselves because of their humanistic qualities completely erase this equation from those students' concepts of who they are? I don't think so. Gatto calls our traditional grading a system of "one-upmanship" (p. 70), and no wonder. Many students, de-motivated, opt out of this system, which makes them feel second-best, or feel like losers.

Consider some divisions this system creates: Principal's Roll, Honor Roll, nothing. First, second, third, nothing. Consider this true story:

I remember my grade two class in 1978. Sports Day had ended, and although some chests boasted many ribbons, others had none or very few. The class had returned to my classroom before they could leave for the day. Those with few or no ribbons (about seven students, I recall) cried. I still feel sick as I remember that day, as I visualize those sad faces. I asked the unhappy seven, "Do your parents love you because of who you are, or because of how many ribbons you have?" They didn't seem to know the answer. I told them, "Your parents love you because of who you are, not because of how many ribbons you have." I'm not sure they believed me. (Lukiv, 2000, p. 2f)

If you, the reader, don't believe that competition divides, or de-motivates, or, as Gatto says, that competition "dehumanize[s]" (1992, p. 62), then ask awardless students on awards day how they feel. Ask them if they feel motivated to work towards the next one. Or imagine asking my group of seven if they would look forward to another sports day the next day.

Alfie Kohn, in Beyond Discipline: From Compliance to Community, agrees, too, that competition, which doesn't address many students' need for acceptance and belonging (community), often de-motivates them:

Here's a[n]...exercise worth trying out at a faculty meeting: ask everyone to think of the most effective ways by which a community can be destroyed. Don't be surprised if participants nominate competition as the number one community destroyer [and motivation destroyer]--not only awards assemblies but spelling bees, charts that rank students against each other, grading on a curve, and other things that teach each person to regard everyone else as obstacles to his or her own success. (1996, p. 106)

The case against competition grows even stronger when we teach Aboriginal students:

Solidarity and loyalty to the group is likely to be contradicted by learning practices which encourage competition rather than cooperation. Any demonstration of individual superiority is avoided because it is seen as demonstrating the inferiority of others. A competitive classroom atmosphere therefore [de-motivates,] produc[ing] conflict in [many] First Nations students who are disposed to learn cooperatively in groups rather than competitively as individuals. (Maina, 1997, p. 304)

I'll sum that up: Aboriginals have long-established cultural forces against competition, because, for them, it divides, dehumanizes, and de-motivates.

To do the opposite, to motivate students, address their needs. I teach in a secondary alternate classroom at McNaughton Centre, in Quesnel, BC. Each year, typically, I have students who were unmotivated in "regular" settings. I could relate a bookful of examples of many of those students who became academically successful simply through my addressing their needs--as related to their learning styles, cultural forces, circumstances, passions, interests, frustrations, strengths, and weaknesses. I have spoken with secondary alternate teachers from all over BC, and they have all reflected the same language: address the needs of the students, and, almost without exception, success at school will follow.


1 Some students, often highly creative, need more than greater autonomy; they also need notable levels of novelty. And they often thrive on competence. "Humans are predisposed to derive pleasure from activities and events that provide some level of [novelty:] surprise, incongruity, complexity, or discrepancy from their expectations or beliefs" (Stipek, 1998, p. 122). In addition, "competence engenders a positive emotional experience, [and] this positive emotional experience makes mastery behavior self-reinforcing" (p. 119). These students, in short, need schoolwork that addresses their appetite for competence, novelty, and autonomy (pp. 117-135).

2 For some, competition replaces acceptance and belonging. Competition replaces community.

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